The participation of North Korea in the Winter Olympics, the unified hockey team with the South, and their joint march at the opening ceremony, has largely been interpreted in a strange, and troubling, way in the West. Many on the Left have gone as far to actively laud the regime for what they see as an attempt at rapprochement, and have suggested the White House has been diplomatically outmanoeuvred by their refusal to buy into these vain and superficial gestures of goodwill.
However, this embracing of North Korea has exposed a perverse moral order at the heart of the international community. Whilst Russia has been banned for the systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs, and rightly so, North Korea, a totalitarian regime led by a murderous despot, has been welcomed with open arms. And though, of course, the state-sponsored behaviour of Russian athletes is more relevant to a sports competition than a country’s political regime, it is nonetheless difficult to ignore the logic which suggests that the IOC somehow deems Russia to be morally worse than North Korea, which, for all of its very serious flaws, in sporting and political terms, it clearly is not.
Not only this, but in many ways, the manner in which North Korea pushes its athletes to Olympic standard is brutal and, quite frankly, indefensible. Take the case of Choi Hyun Mi – a former North Korean boxer who defected to South Korea in 2004, her family having fled the dictatorship via China and Vietnam. She was selected as a boxer by the government, at the age of just eleven, and coerced to train relentlessly as part of a cruel and morally despicable regime. Food became tightly controlled: not for nutritional purposes, but as an incentive. The harder she fought, the more she ate; whenever she showed signs of weariness, she would be punished with hunger. And if she had the temerity to lose a fight? She might be forced to stand in front of a crowd and be publically abused – and God help her if her opponent happened to South Korean, Japanese or American. Her story is not unique, and is deeply embedded in historic precedent – famously, the entire 1966 North Korean World Cup squad was thrown into a gulag after failing to win the competition. It reveals very poorly on the ethics of the competition that state-sponsored doping is banned, but state-sponsored torture is implicitly legitimised.
What is even worse is the way Kim Jong-un’s propaganda has been lapped up by some in the West. The New York Times, putting its anti-Trumpism before everything else, tweeted: “Without a word, only flashing smiles, Kim Jong-un’s sister outflanked Vice President Mike Pence in diplomacy.” This is the woman personally responsible for the regime’s repressive propaganda outfit who now wields increasing power in the Workers’ Party. One does not have to be on the Trump Train to appreciate the Vice President’s intentions in not allowing “North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region.” His small, but symbolically powerful, gesture of being accompanied to the opening ceremony by the father of Otto Warmbier, the American student arbitrarily imprisoned by the regime who died a few days after finally being returned to his homeland in a coma, should be praised by us all.
Dignitaries at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony including Vice-President Mike Pence and Kim Yo-jong (back left), sister of the brutal North Korean tyrant
Quite remarkably, an ABC News headline seemed to glorify the country’s representatives and their propagandistic activities. “North Korea’s 200-pus cheerleaders command spotlight at 2018 Winter Olympics with synchronised chants,” the headline celebrated. The writer went on to marvel at the “gusto and unified precision” with which they sang and clapped, the way they “sat silently” throughout the opening ceremony before they “suddenly stood up and erupted in synchronised chants, enthusiastically waving flags depicting the unified Korean peninsula.” Perhaps he forgot the fact that the minutiae of their lives are strictly controlled by the authorities, and these women have almost certainly been carefully handpicked from the country’s universities and nationalist groups. The nauseating propaganda carried out by the cheerleaders under the duress of the regime – which also included wearing masks of what appeared to be former dictator, Kim Il-sung – should be unequivocally condemned rather than celebrated, let alone by Western media.
This should be a time for the best athletes in winter sports to shine on the global stage. But the competition which should be theirs has been overshadowed, not only by the very presence of a murderous regime, but then the manner in which North Korea has used the competition as a purely propagandistic exercise. All of this has, unfortunately, rendered the Winter Olympics a debased, immoral farce.
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